September 24, 2018
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Fear and loathing in Woodward’s White House

Alex Brandon | AP
Alex Brandon | AP
Former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward speaking during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate in Washington, June 11, 2012.
By Timothy L. O'Brien, Bloomberg Opinion

Bob Woodward, as you might have heard, has a book about President Donald Trump on the way.

“Fear: Trump in the White House” is reportedly chock full of ripe White House anecdotes, with various prominent officials and staffers describing the president as acting and thinking like a “fifth- or sixth-grader,” as “unhinged” and as “an idiot.” Team Trump thus engages in what Woodward describes as an “an administrative coup d’etat” to circumvent Trump’s worst impulses (like pondering assassinating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launching a military strike against North Korea, and pulling out of key global trade agreements).

Woodward, the legendary Washington Post scribe, also showcases Trump as a dysfunctional predator, which is a completely familiar portrait to those who’ve watched and worked with the president over the years. “The soldiers on the ground could run things much better than you,” Trump, who secured several draft deferments to avoid serving in the Vietnam War, tells his senior military advisers. Trump describes Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “mentally retarded,” former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as dressing “like a beer salesman,” and former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus as “a little rat” who “just scurries around.”

Priebus chimes in with his own assessment of how animals behave on the White House hunting grounds. “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody,” he allows, according to Woodward’s account.

Trump, unable to avoid giving Woodward bankable free publicity, took to Twitter on Tuesday evening to rip into a book that won’t be publicly available until next week:

“The Woodward book has already been refuted and discredited by General (Secretary of Defense) James Mattis and General (Chief of Staff) John Kelly. Their quotes were made up frauds, a con on the public. Likewise other stories and quotes. Woodward is a Dem operative? Notice timing?”

Defense Secretary James Mattis (to whom Woodward attributes the “sixth-grader” quote) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (to whom Woodward attributes the “unhinged” and “idiot” quotes) both indeed disputed that they said anything of the sort about Trump. Subjects and critics of Woodward’s books over the years have complained about his zealous approach to narrative reconstructions and some of the details in his reporting, while largely failing to undermine the broader thrusts of a body of work built upon heaps of in-depth, recorded interviews and ample documentation.

And the broader picture of life inside the Trump White House corresponds very closely to life inside the Trump Organization over the last few decades and life inside the Trump presidential campaign just two and three years ago. Trump has always been thus, and Woodward’s book is the latest confirmation of that reality. No one coming to terms with the Trump presidency has any reason to be surprised by what they’re seeing, including the people who’ve decided to work for him — which, of course, begs the question: Why did all these folks who’ve spoken to Woodward decide to work in the Trump White House to begin with?

“I don’t even know why any of us are here,” Woodward quotes Kelly as saying. “This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

Awwww. Boo hoo. Kelly’s a tough and crusty old military guy, so he should buck up. He’s also clearly been quite willing at times to revel in highly personal, fact-free, Trumpian attacks on the administration’s critics — suggesting that a core part of him is at peace with aggressively promoting the White House’s policies and agenda (like separating migrant children from their families). Like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, Kelly may be hanging on at the White House because he shares many of his boss’ goals.

Mattis comes across well in reported excerpts of Woodward’s book, including standing tall as a bulwark against the Dr. Strangelove components of Trump and his presidency. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis advises the benighted president when explaining why the U.S. maintains a military presence in South Korea. When Trump tells Mattis he wants Assad killed, Woodward reports, Mattis promises that he’ll get right on it before telling his staff that they’ll pursue no such thing. Mattis is somebody who continues to work in the White House because he’s a public servant and career military leader who knows he offers real insulation against Trump’s war-mongering.

If folks like Kelly stay in the White House for the policy and those like Mattis are hanging in there out of a demonstrable sense of duty, what about the rest of the people who have wandered in and out of Trumplandia with motivations that don’t fit neatly into either of those categories? I suspect it’s because they’re craven, and they’re comfortable dismissing the abuses or car crashes they’re witnessing because they see the White House as a resume builder or an opportunity to line their wallets.

Even so — whether at Trump’s side because they believe, they serve or they finagle — everyone in the White House should take careful note of the person they’re dealing with and the person whom Woodward has fleshed out.

The Washington Post published a recording of Woodward’s only conversation with Trump, which took place in August over the telephone. Trump’s immediate goal in the chat is to try to get away with saying that Woodward never attempted to interview him for his book, which had been completed by the time they talked. Woodward easily catches Trump out in that lie, leading Trump to breezily move on while reminding Woodward that “nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president.”

Trump — about to be on the receiving end of a potentially damaging book written by a Washington insider with bipartisan, established credentials — is utterly calm on the recording. And he’s calm, despite daily temper tantrums over media coverage, because he generally doesn’t care about the long-term damage he might inflict on himself or those around him as long as he’s the center of attention.

This plays out in larger and more troubling ways as well, according to Woodward’s book, and history may judge most of Trump’s White House team and political party harshly for enabling the president’s radical solipsism. After Trump criticizes the U.S.’s military commitment to South Korea, one White House adviser asks Trump what he would “need in the region to sleep well at night.”

“I wouldn’t need a [expletive] thing,” Trump replies. “And I’d sleep like a baby.”

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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